Some marketing types like to talk about what they call fast followers, people who capitalize on an idea and make it better or more palatable shortly after the innovator puts out their original product, smartly getting someone else to test the waters for both the idea generally and the flaws in its initial execution. If this is true, then we can safely assume that the “Norwegian” Sons of Balaur weren’t created by competent marketers in a boardroom. A cartoon metal band with a fantasy backstory happened in 2006 with Metalocalypse, and the first Dethalbum came out in 2007. Nearly a decade later, Tenebris Deos is set to debut the sound of these four graphic novel protagonists to the world, cold on the heels of Metalocalypse.
Promo material and track premier press releases admirably stick to the mythology around long-lost black metal band Sons of Balaur, which in their lore started in Norway in 1992. Celtic Frost, Venom, and Bathory were predictably invoked, along with an offhand reference to whatever “third generation black metal” is, but let’s be honest: this sounds a whole lot like Watain. These promo blurbs aren’t technically lying, but they’re telling half-truths in the “not touching you, can’t get mad” sort of way. Watain’s later work (Sworn to the Dark and Lawless Darkness) took influence from all of the aforementioned bands, and Tenebris Deos takes their influence in a second-hand way by hearing them as Watain did.
If you wish that Watain amplified the arena rock elements on The Wild Hunt and applied them to a streamlined combo of Lawless Darkness and Sworn to the Dark, you’re in luck. Album highlight “Old Relics” does exactly this and knocks its chorus out of the park, and this well-executed arena black n’ roll works well with the polished and modern nature of the record. “Soldiers of Darkness” is chunkier Dissection by way of Watain with some added hard rock swagger, and it’s a rollicking tune with a big hook that brings the best aspects of Sons of Balaur together convincingly. The melody which closes “Nematari the Desert Queen” is one of the record’s best, with the arena rock coming through with the chanted “hey”’s underneath the steady drum beat that ties it all together. “Invocation” brings Watain’s love of burly Celtic Frost style riffs to the fore, opening Tenebris Deos in an immediate and fun manner. It’s accessible as all get-out, giving the impression of an entertaining and inviting record.
Despite writing some of this a day after Thanksgiving dinner and thoroughly enjoying warmed-up leftovers, delicious and moist turkey fares much better than Watain outtakes in this regard. “The Curse of Bloodlust” runs through some bland riffs that struggle to differentiate themselves from each other and go nowhere fast, sounding like Watain-themed wallpaper. “The Nameless Roams the Earth” tries to stand on black metal merits alone, and the lack of arena rock flair shows the significant cracks in Sons of Balaur’s foundation; they’re simply not a good straightforward black metal outfit. The clean intro is decent at first but outstays its welcome, and the tremolo riffing is uninspired stock black metal that sounds like it was purchased in bulk from Costco. Putting the rather needless and uninteresting interlude “Prologue” immediately after the strong opening of “Invocation” annihilated the records flow. Instead of a solid one-two punch of quality tracks to start Tenebris Deos, Sons of Balaur weirdly opt for a one-song winning streak.
Tenebris Deos will infuriate those who demand the chilliest production values from their black metal, but I suppose those folks wouldn’t be the target demographic of a more extreme Gorillaz anyhow. In a development as shocking as the Toronto Maple Leafs failing to win the Stanley Cup again, the production follows the music and sounds like newer Watain. The drums are a hair under replaced, the guitars pristine yet thick in the lower registers, bass quietly exists somewhere, and it all comes across as meticulously assembled. Unfortunately, the product so assembled is always going to be thought of as a lesser knockoff of Dethklok. Sons of Balaur aren’t bad, but it’s impossible to buy into them as a long-lost band from 1992 because they sound far too modern, polished, and tame for that. On their own merits independent of the cartoon stuff, they sound like imitation-grade Watain with a bit more arena rock added in for good measure. Either way you slice it, what you’re getting here is second-rate.